ON THE WATERFRONT: River Wear Watch’s new home

Bodlewell Lane Police Station.
Bodlewell Lane Police Station.
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This week, we continue with our account of where Sunderland’s river police - the River Wear Watch - was stationed.

With the old Low Street station being deemed unfit for purpose, Sunderland Corporation agreed to construct new premises in the heart of the town’s historic waterfront.

The site chosen was on the south-western corner of the junction of Low Street and Bodlewell Lane facing the ferry landing. The foundation stone was laid on March 14, 1872 by WS Robinson, chairman of the Corporation’s Watch Sub-Committee.

Described as being of “Elizabethan” character, the four-storey building was constructed from red brick with stone dressings. Built at a cost of some £2,200, the premises occupied an area measuring 51 by 32 feet.

£60 per was paid annually as rental for the river police’s tenancy, occupancy again being shared with Sunderland Borough Police.

Opened without ceremony on February 10, 1873, the station consisted of four upper storeys and a basement.

The charge room and inspector’s office were on the ground floor, together with a heating room, two cells and a fire extinguishing apparatus house.

On the first floor, a boardroom was provided for the River Wear Watch Commissioners. Four more cells brought total prisoner accommodation up to 50.

Apartments for the river police inspector, comprising kitchen, parlour and three bedrooms were situated on the second floor, these initially being occupied by Nathaniel Allan, who would be dismissed for overstepping his authority in 1875.

A mess room and four bedrooms enabled eight constables to be billeted on the top floor.

At the heart of the riverfront’s nefarious activities, Bodlewell Lane Police Station saw more than its fair share of incident and mystery.

In 1878, it was here that murderer Robert Vest was taken after his arrest by River Inspector James Lakin for stabbing a North Sea pilot in Sunderland anchorage.

Then in 1913, Inspector Lakin, himself, made a fateful exit from the station, not being seen again until his lifeless body was pulled from the river in mysterious circumstances.

Working from Bodlewell Lane, Detective Sergeant George Royal was imprisoned as an alien enemy in 1914 and ordered to be deported after being discovered to be a German subject. The intriguing question remains - did the Watch have a potential spy in its midst?

In 1923, following the introduction of the police box system in Sunderland by Borough Police Chief Constable Frederick Crawley - who was also Superintendent of the Watch - the Borough force vacated Bodlewell Lane.

This resulted in the River Wear Watch Commissioners terminating their tenancy on May 13, 1925.

From then on, the river police headquarters would be based afloat.

After being converted into tenements, the old station was demolished many years ago.

l To be continued ......